When it comes to health care, today’s consumers have a lot of choices. And with the increasing popularity of urgent care centers throughout the country, there are now more options than ever. So how do you decide which urgent care provider is right for you and your family? Selecting the best urgent care depends on several factors, including location and menu of services.

UrgentCare

Feeling sick—or you have a kid who does—but you find out that your doctor’s office cannot fit you in for another week? Primary-care physicians are not the only game in town. In fact, depending on where you live, you may have several places to turn, including an urgent care clinic and an in-store “retail clinic” set up in a grocery store or pharmacy along with the local hospital emergency department. The inevitable question then becomes: Which level of care should you seek—and for what ailments? Based on conversations with an emergency department doctor, a primary-care physician who runs and co-owns an urgent care clinic, and a nurse practitioner who cares for patients at clinics inside pharmacies, it turns out there are no black-and-white answers. You can do your own triage, however, and potentially avoid hours in a waiting room. Consider these points:

Services provided

The emergency department can handle everything, but the wait time and cost can be factors, depending on the patient’s complaint. In-store clinics, like Minute Clinics, which have a partnership with CVS pharmacies, offer a specific menu of services that would typically be addressed in the office of a primary-care physician. Care is typically given by nurse practitioners who can write prescriptions. Each service has an out-of-pocket cost, though insurance companies may cover care received.

Urgent care clinics, on the other hand, are staffed by doctors trained in primary care or emergency medicine, often along with nurses. Patients can pay out of pocket, but insurance regularly covers a visit. But services offered can really differ by clinic, says Lou Ellen Horwitz, executive director of the Urgent Care Association of America; some may have the ability to perform blood work, a chest X-ray, an EKG of the electrical pulses of a patient’s heart, or even a CAT scan, while others don’t. Patients would be wise to call ahead to be sure their concern can be handled. The menu of offerings at urgent care centers, too, may be influenced by the type of clinicians who staff them. Those run by doctors trained in emergency medicine might cater more to one-time issues, like a cut or ankle sprain, while those run by doctors trained in family medicine might serve as a regular source of primary care—offering well-baby exams, pap smears, and prescriptions for chronic conditions, like high cholesterol or hypertension. “I have patients I’ve seen 50 times,” explains Phillip Disraeli, who co-owns Metro Urgent Care in Frisco, Texas, and is director of clinical programs for the Urgent Care Association of America.

Cost

If bargain shopping is a motivation in your decision-making process, it seems in-store clinics may have the best deals. In the Annals of Internal Medicine study, the total cost per episode was found to vary by location: with a visit to a retail (or in-store) clinic averaging $110, a visit to a physician’s office averaging $166, a visit to an urgent care clinic averaging $156, and a visit to an emergency department averaging $570.

Many urgent care centers are accredited or certified by various health organizations. These distinctions help patients know that their urgent care provider offers experienced, knowledgeable care by board certified physicians and other health care professionals. Take these tips facts into account when selecting an urgent care center.

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